Friday, May 11, 2012

The distinct whiff of arson

A few years ago, the city of Manila in the Philippines, was in a dispute with ICTSI, a shipping container company (owned by one of the Philippine’s four billionaires, Enrique Razon Jr.), & it’s corporate partner, Hanjin, a Korean container company that also runs the shipyard at Subic Bay, Philippines (notorious for flagrant labor abuses). The city claimed the two firms were illegally reclaiming & refurbishing prime real estate in the Tondo district of Manila, along the rim of Manila Bay, without permits & on untitled, public domain property. Nothing much seems to have come from the official blustering. And that would be that, if the area being illegally reclaimed were not also the site of sprawling squatter’s colonies where thousands of people live. These shantytowns are the scene of many fires going back at least to 2004 which have killed some residents, injured many, & repeatedly dislocated tens of thousands. Many of the residents just move back to the site & rebuild since they have no other place to live. Fire forensics are not reported but the fire chief always recites the litany of causes like his mantra: faulty power lines, overcrowding, flimsy building material, strong winds, & intense summer heat. In the five-alarm fire in Tondo (May 11th), he added to this litany, saying firefighters had trouble fighting the blaze since there are no water hydrants in the area & they couldn’t get water to put it out. A fire-prone area with thousands of residents & no water hydrants? In this conflagration, residents stood on roofs shouting for help which did not come, jumped into the bay to escape, tried to salvage some belongings, get their pets, the elderly, infirm, & children on to makeshift rafts, helped rescue each other. Two residents are still missing & 10,000 are made homeless. The whiff of arson is all over this fire, especially in the context of several forcible evictions in other districts of Manila for purposes of land development & gentrification (orchestrated by Henry Sy, a real estate tycoon & another one of the Philippines four billionaires). The combativeness of Filipinos against these evictions is extraordinary & torching their homes might have seemed the quickest way to get the job done. Housing is a primary human need not available to millions of people worldwide & it must become a central political demand. Money for housing, not for war! And that slogan is as apt in Manila as in the US since militarism is a feature of Filipino political rule. In this photo residents untie the hose on a cement mixer to douse water on the fire. (Photo by Cheryl Ravelo/Reuters)

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